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  • Writer's pictureBen Kemper

A Most Wanted Man

Or: The Soft Touch


In Hamburg, Germany, the compost ground of international terrorism (and counter-terrorist agencies) Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) a chechen fugitive slips through the shadow of the city, hoping to flee notice of the government and the horrors of his past. He his under the attention of Gunther Bachman (Philip Seymour Hoffman) leader of a small, grass-roots spy ring - focused on monitoring and “turning” terrorist financiers; tracking minnows to barracudas, barracudas to sharks. Bachman’s team begin a delicate waltz to maneuver Karpov, his lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and Thomas Brue (Willem Dafoe) the banker he has come to find, into entrapping their biggest target, Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) while keeping all three safe from the brutal and terrifying tactics of their rival german units, or worst of all, the Americans.


The story, adapted from the book by John le Carre, is a sweet spot of spy stories, reminding me nothing so much as the master work The Lives of Others. It tells neither a gratuitous and jittery tale blown all out of proportion, nor the dull, oozing moral-mastication variety that have become so popular of late. A Most Wanted Man is a trim, dark piece focusing on the leg work of spying, of hunting fish in a sea of chaos, about the moral wear and tare of the lies and suspicions and falsehoods spun by both the agents and those they trip down the rabbit hole.


Subdued and gritty in its script, the film blossoms under the care of its cinematographer Benoit Delhomme a master of space. Using the oversized and huddled architecture of Hamberg, Delhomme lets us track the characters as they rattle about a series of empty rooms and unforgiving streets, which lends a visual poetry on par with T.S. Elliot: “When the evening is spread out against the sky/ like a patient etherized upon a table.” His chases, both physical and psychological, have an oddly stationary quality, but are none the less blood-stirring as the violence of the moment goes out like the tide.


There are times when Delhomme’s camera seems to be doing most of the acting for the cast but Hoffman’s mastered the soft touch that embodies both the films aesthetic and his characters code. Plodding about the city like a smoking mole, Bachmann’s flat surliness is translated by Hoffman’s talent into many levels of inward complexity, and outward manipulation. This is especially apparent in his ofttimes wordless conferrals and conversations interactions with the unit’s No. 2 Irna Frey (Nina Hoss) who matches Hoffman for convoluted silence, blink for blink. As for Dobrygin haunted and hunted expressions, and his traumatized stiffness allow us to paint our sympathies on to him, a rare and vulnerable feat.

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